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The Owner of New York's Oldest Tattoo Shop Says the Industry 'Exploded Overnight'

Since it illegally opened in 1976, Fineline Tattoos has lived through multiple sea changes in NYC tattoo culture. On the 40th anniversary of the shop opening on the Bowery, we talked to the longtime owners about ink in the Big Apple.

All photos courtesy of Fineline Tattoo

Even though New York City banned tattooing in 1961, that didn't stop Mike Bakaty from opening his own parlor. As the original owner of Fineline Tattoo, the New Yorker illegally set up a shop in a loft on the Bowery in 1976, where he began building up his clientele during the height of the city-wide tattoo prohibition. While tattooing was fully underground at the time, the vibrancy of the subculture remained intact through people like Bakaty, who kept honing his craft despite the possible legal ramifications. In 1997, when the ban on tattooing was lifted, Fineline remerged into the mainstream as a storefront in the East Village, where it still stands today at 21 First Avenue.

Gone are the days of illegal tattooing, and now, four decades later, Bakaty's son Mehai has carried on his father's legacy by not only taking over as owner of New York City's oldest tattoo parlor, but by also continuing to work as a tattoo artist himself. Though Mike Bakaty has passed, Fineline continues to set itself apart from other shops because of its lineage, NYC roots, and the talented ink the artists there continue to produce. While boutique tattoo shops are all the rage today, Fineline stands out for being a "throwback to to the old school, no-nonsense street shops of days gone by," according to Mehai. In other words, clients are offered a balance between great tattoo work and a no-frills shop, with a dash of tattoo history thrown in, too.

Last week, Bakaty and others celebrated the 40th anniversary of the shop's illegal inception with a party. A few days prior, the shop owner and tattoo artist talked to VICE about Fineline's history, as well as how tattoo culture in NYC has changed over the years.

VICE: Congrats on the anniversary! To start, I wanted to ask you about the changes you've seen in the East Village over the last 15 years and what effect they've had on the shop, if any?
Mehai Bakaty: The Lower East Side of Manhattan was always sort of a poor, low-rent district, but over the last number of years it seems to have become a very affluent area with luxury hotels going up all over the place and small businesses folding up left and right due to increased rent demands. But, we're still here through it all, thanks to the support of our customers and the neighborhood, in general.

Fineline was an illicit spot for many years, operating when tattooing was illegal in NYC. What was it like back then? What were some interesting run-ins you had while you were tattooing?
Well the whole city of New York itself was illicit, for most of that time. During the 1980s, cabs would refuse to go below 14th Street. Tattooing during the ban was about keeping a low profile. There was little to no opportunity for advertising, except for on the back pages of the Village Voice. Our ad would appear alongside ads for 1-800-Blow-Me, or whatever sex line was there. Our customers mainly came by word-of-mouth referrals. You really had to be in the know or really want to get tattooed to find someone tattooing, and there weren't very many people tattooing at all in the city during the 1970s and 1980s. Hell, there weren't many people getting tattooed in the 70s and 80s, not like today.

The tattoo shop was in the loft I grew up in, and, yes, it was a real shop built in a professional manner. No kitchen magician stuff. We would have all kinds of people there—cops, teachers, lawyers, actors, drug dealers, people from every walk of life. I remember a few times when members of obviously-rival gangs were in the shop at the same time. There would be high tension in the air, but everyone acted respectfully within the confines of the holy tattoo shop, or something. People were mostly very respectful back then.

How have you seen the tattoo industry evolve since the NYC ban was lifted in 1997?
The tattooing industry, just like the city, was completely different when I was a kid. I think the evolution of tattoo culture started long before the ban was lifted, but I can say that here in New York the whole thing just sort of exploded overnight. Though now that I think about it, it really seems to have exploded all over the world overnight. There's a hell of a lot more interest now than there was 20 years ago, that's for sure.

First day at the 21 First Avenue storefront, 1997.

What are some of your favorite tattoos you've done over the years?
Favorite tattoos? I've done so many. I've covered entire bodies in tattoos. It's really hard to pick like that, but I will say I have developed some very rich and deep relationships with some of the people I've tattooed, and I cherish that most of all. I love my work, and the fact that I get to draw pretty pictures for a living means that my favorite tattoo might just be the next one I do.

What are some tattoo trends you've noticed over the last few years?
Trends in tattooing are interesting. They definitely happen, but generally tend to not last too long. Right now, I would say lettering is huge—quotes and things of that nature—though I'm not too sure that was ever really out of style. We're seeing a huge resurgence in classic Americana-style tattooing these days, though, so I might say the old classic standbys seem to be the current trend.

Do you think there is a specific NYC style of tattooing?
New York-style tattooing is the best example of what has generally been referred to as "East Coast-style," with bold line shading and color. I will say I think the ethnic diversity of New York keeps the imagery fresh and ever-changing. I'll also say New York style is related to global style.

What is one of the weirdest encounters you've had with a client as a tattooer?
Weird is such a relative term... We had one guy come around a couple times maybe ten years ago, or so. We all figured he was homeless or something. None of us wanted to tattoo him, but my dad had a kind heart and agreed to do it. This guy wanted some naked lady pinup on his leg. My dad gave him a price, and he agreed without flinching. So he starts to remove the four pairs of pants he's wearing in the middle of July. The guy smelled so bad from the back of the shop that we had to keep the front door open. Anyway my dad finishes up, the guy gets dressed, and I'm thinking he's about to stiff us. Guy reaches into his pants and pulls out one of the biggest wad of hundred dollar bills I've seen to this day. He pays and went respectfully on his way—though not fast enough for me, due to the smell.

The original Fineline shop at 296 Bowery.

Where do you think Fineline fits into the larger story of American tattoo history?
This is a tough question. You can't really claim history until its over, and we're not done yet, so I'll let the history books figure it out.

What advice would you give to someone getting their first tattoo?
Don't be hasty. Take your time and get something you really want, something you think you can grow with. Then take the time to vibe out an artist to execute it, someone you won't mind spending some quality pain time with. Once you have it, own it and enjoy it everyday.

What's next for Fineline?
Well, we're gonna have a fun party for our anniversary, then it's back to work.

Visit Fineline Tattoo's website for more information on the shop.

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